Thomas Proctor Howard

(1779 - 1814)
Private, U.S. Army

A Man by the Name of Howard

Thomas Proctor Howard was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, 20 miles east of Springfield, in 1779. He began a five-year enlistment in the U.S. army at age 22, and by 1803 had been posted to South West Point, Tennessee.1 The blue-eyed young Howard was one of a group of eight men assigned to the expedition by Captain John Campbell, of the Second Infantry Regiment. Clark rejected four of the eight who, he judged, were "not such I was told was in readiness...for this Com[man]d." He accepted only Howard, Hugh Hall, John Potts, and Richard Warfington. At Camp Dubois, Howard was one of Clark's couriers; he carried a letter to Lewis at Cahokia on January 27, 1804. The meaning behind the comment "never Drink water," beside his name in a list of unknown purpose written in early January of 1804, is open to question. If Clark suspected Howard was inclined toward drunkenness he was evidently mistaken, for the man never got into trouble on that account.

Since the journalists mentioned him only twice as a hunter, Howard evidently was not in the same echelon of nimrods as George Drouillard or the Field brothers. His problem was not necessarily with his marksmanship, as Lewis once had occasion to specify. On January 23, 1806, Lewis dispatched him and William Werner to the Salt Camp on the ocean beach, to bring back a supply of salt. When they had not returned by the 26th, Lewis feared they had gotten lost. "Neither of them are very good woodsmen," he observed. However, the two men returned safely two days later, and confirmed Lewis's hope that only "the badness of the weather and the difficulty of the road had caused their delay."

One of his better days on the chase, it turned out, may have been on the morning of July 28, 1806, when his was one of the two rifles whose "joyfull sound" greeted Lewis and his detail as they neared the Missouri after fleeing from their skirmish on the Two Medicine River.2 Howard and another man had gone ahead of the canoes to hunt, and he himself had killed two deer.

Howard was the last among the eleven members of the Corps of Discovery to suffer the ignominies of courts martial. He committed his crime at Fort Mandan on the bitterly cold night of February 9, 1805. Captain Lewis recorded the incident in a suitably official tone:

this evening a man by the name of Howard whom I had given permission to go the Mandane vilage returned after the gate was shut and rether than call to the guard to have it opened scaled the works an indian who was looking on shortly after followed his example. I...convinced the Indian of the impropryety of his conduct, and explained to him the riske he had run of being severely treated, the fellow appeared much allarmed, I gave him a small piece of tobacco and sent him away Howard I had comitted to the care of the guard with a determineation to have him tryed by a Courtmartial for this offence.

Lewis was deeply disappointed in Private Howard. This man, he wrote, "is an old soldier which still hightens this offince." Indeed, the potential consequences could have been serious. Whereas only one Indian had climbed over the pickets, at least two others had followed Howard home. If the officers had overlooked the soldier's bad judgment and word of the fort's vulnerability had gotten out, it could at best have encouraged the friendly Mandans to make nuisances of themselves, and at worst led to a surprise attack by the bellicose Teton Sioux. His court martial was held the following morning. Sergeant Ordway reported that the prisoner was found guilty. At sundown his sentence of 50 lashes was announced, and he was referred to the mercy of the commanding officer. By that point, more than eight months into the expedition, Howard must have displayed enough redeeming qualities to justify a suspended sentence, and the record of the trial was omitted from the Orderly Book. That alone would have been enough to garland his reputation as a worthy, if not particularly indispensable, member of the Corps of Discovery.

Naturally, Howard was subject to the same risks as everyone else, but one supposes he may have been the cautious type, for he escaped debilitating injury and illness. He suffered frostbitten feet on one of his few assignments as a hunter, on a day at Fort Clatsop when the mercury rose no higher than 8° above zero. Later, on the return down the Jefferson River from Camp Fortunate, Howard was in the stern of Clark's canoe when the wind drove it under a projecting log and he "was Caught in between the Canoe and the log and a little hurt."

In the apparently random list from which the captains drew, he was the thirteenth member of the Corps to have a stream named after him. On July 25, 1805, within the Missouri River canyon Lewis called the "Little Gates" of the Rocky Mountains, Lewis bestowed Howard's name upon "a bold runing stream" that nearly 80 years later came to be known as Sixteenmile Creek.

In 1808 he married an illiterate French woman, Genevieve Roy, who bore them two sons. Howard died in St. Louis, probably early in 1814. Clark apparently missed hearing the news, but court documents showed that Howard's small estate continued unsettled until 1826, all its papers signed with Mrs. Howard's "X." One of the boys, Joseph, worked as a trapper for William Ashley on the Upper Missouri for about twenty years.3

So far as we know, only three men in the Corps of Discovery had three names – a first or given name, a middle name, and a last name, properly called a surname or family name. The other two were Alexander Hamilton Willard and Nathaniel Hale Pryor. William Bratton, Moses Reed, and John Thompson had middle initials, but it is not known what names they stood for. The remaining 81% of the Corps of Discovery, including the two captains, had only first names and surnames. That proportion was probably about the standard for the American population at large, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is said to have been German immigrants who brought with them to the American Colonies the practice of giving each of their children both a first and a middle name. The first was often that of a saint or a Biblical personage; the middle name was the "call name" by which a child was familiarly known.

By 1850 the population of the U.S. had grown large enough, and mobile enough, that clear personal identity became more desirable, and the giving of middle names to newborn children was the obvious recourse. The selections most often memorialized beloved family members and honored ancestors, or sometimes contemporaries with whom the parents felt strong affinities. That was the case with Private Willard's father, who was committed to Federalist values, and proudly named his son after that party's founder, Alexander Hamilton. The backgrounds of Howard's first two names are unknown; it seems likely, though, that his middle name was of British origin.Throughout the 20th century the need and practice continued to expand until by 1977 95% of all men and 92% of all women in the United States had legal names consisting of three parts at most.4 The earlier occasional practice of giving children two or more middle names was eliminated by computerized forms that leave no room for more than one middle name or initial.

1. Fort South West Point was active from 1794 until 1807 in Cherokee Indian country, at today's Kingston, Tennessee.

2. It could instead, or even also, have been the guns of Gass and Willard, who had been hunting since the 27th, and before noon on the 28th had killed six antelopes and seven buffaloes.

3. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 154.

4. Leslie Dunkling, First Names First (New York: Universt Books, 1977), 24.See also Stephen Wilson, The Means of Naming: A social and cultural history of personal naming in western Europe (London: UCL Press, 1998), 300.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program